Shehla Masood murder scares RTI activists
Posted October 27, 2011on:
Shehla Masood’s day-light murder in front of her house in Bhopal (now being investigated by the CBI) has scared the RTI activists. The manner in which the Madhya Pradesh police and the medico-legal department fudged the primary evidence and the CBI’s propensity to enact farces rather than go about its job seriously has not been helpful.
Many representations have of late been made to the governments in Madhya Pradesh and at the Centre and also to the State and Central Information Commissions asking for some mechanism to protect the lives of those who use the RTI Act to seek sensitive information. While the governments are yet to move in the matter, the members of the Central Information Commission (CIC) have exercised their mind and come up with a proposal. Even though much too inadequate, the CIC proposal at least shows the concern that the Central Commissioners are feeling at the spate of attacks on the RTI activists all over the country.
The CIC resolution states, “The Central Information Commission expresses regret and takes note of the reported killings of and assault on the RTI users across the country. The Commission underlines the need to take urgent steps by the respective governments for the safety and protection of RTI users. The Commission strongly believes that it is the duty and responsibility of the respective governments to safeguard the life and liberty of the RTI users for which purpose they should invoke the relevant penal provisions for the prevention and detection of such heinous crimes.
“This Commission, therefore, resolves that if it receives a complaint regarding assault or murder of an information seeker, it will examine the pending RTI applications of the victim and order the concerned Department(s) to publish the requested information suo moto on their website as per the provisions of law. This Commission also resolves that it will take proactive steps in ascertaining the status of investigations/prosecutions of the cases involving information seekers and endeavour to have these processes expedited.”
The biggest drawback of the CIC resolution is that it envisages action after an assault or murder of an RTI user. It is therefore of no help to the RTI activist. Since the assault would be engineered by a big shot threatened by the revelation of the information sought, it had more often to be fatal so that there is no risk of the RTI activist surviving to tell tales.
Secondly, the CIC proposal says that it will, on receiving a complaint regarding assault or murder of an RTI user, examine the pending RTI applications of the victim and order the concerned Department(s) to publish the requested information suo moto on their website. This is a grey area, to say the least. The record of the applications moved by the victim may not be available. The Madhya Pradesh police, for instance, took away the mobile, laptop and other papers of Shehla Masood promptly after her murder and tampered with her mobile and laptop, as the CBI was reported to have found when it took up the investigation a few weeks later.
And to expect the government departments to come forward on their own and reveal the applications received from Shehla Masood (or any other RTI activist, for that matter) is like wishing to touch the moon. If the departments were so honest and cooperative, there would be no need to eliminate the Shehla Masoods.
The matter becomes all the more complicated when the government tries to protect the killers, as in the case of Shehla Masood. State police chief S K Raut, along with other top police officers, was at the scene of crime within half an hour of Shehla’s murder to (mis)direct the investigation and Medico-Legal Institute director D S Badkur himself insisted on her post mortem examination, and promptly spread the word that Shehla must have committed suicide. Reports now suggest that Dr Badkur had not allowed the surgeons on duty who were already conducting post mortem examinations. No private operator, however high or mighty, can order about the heads of the police and forensic departments without the active interest and support of high-ups in the government.
Perhaps a more workable proposal has been suggested by ‘Prayatna’, an environmental action group active in the field of RTI almost from the time the RTI Act came into operation. In a memorandum submitted to the Madhya Pradesh chief secretary, ‘Prayatna’ has suggested that every department (of the government) and PSU should be made to publish regularly the details of the monthly receipts and disposal of the RTI applications on their website with the copies of the RTI applications, copies of the replies, copies of the first appeals, and the orders passed on the first appeals. Besides, the office copies of the information provided should be kept in the library for perusal of the public.
‘Prayatna’ secretary Ajay Dubey feels that this will eliminate the threat to the life of the information seeker as the assault or murder of the RTI user will not help in keeping the information concealed. Dubey sees another big advantage in this. He says the RTI activists are frequently accused of blackmailing (the Madhya Pradesh police had tried hard to paint Shehla Masood as using the RTI for blackmail). With the information already public, there would not even be a scope for blackmailing.
Some other suggestions made in the ‘Prayatna’ memorandum include proper publicity of the RTI Act provisions, inclusion of the RTI Act provisions in school syllabi, acceptance of RTI applications at the call centres of the Madhya Pradesh government (it is being done in Bihar), allowing applications online as is being done in Rajasthan and Karnataka, and the particulars of information officers, assistant information officers and appellate authorities made available on the website.